I’m having one of those days where everything comes unstuck and I suddenly reply to all the emails I’ve been putting off replying to for months and months and months on end. This often ends up being a hugely heartening exercise because I find that my “Reply Later” stack, grown into a source of guilt and avoidance, is actually full of the loveliest stuff—the internet penpal stuff, the unexpected fan mail stuff, the slow motion friendship stuff. It’s because it’s lovely that it gets shoved into that folder in the first place! I want to give it time.
And you know, maybe that’s okay.
Anyway, I’m going to do something potentially gauche and quote myself because I jotted this thing down in an email to James back in January and I realized instead of waiting to write the perfect blog post about it I could just copy and paste right out of the email and be done with it. So that’s what I’m doing.
Your comment about “the arbitrary nature of the rope” brought back a memory I kept wanting to write about of seeing folks trying a VR tightrope simulator for the first time in 2016. They just had to walk across a rope lying on the floor, but of course the headset makes you think you’re wobbling along over 50 metres of thin air. Watching people try to accomplish something that was, from where I was standing, clearly safe, but behaving as if they were performing a death-defying high wire act…god. It just felt like such an accurate metaphor for the process of creating anything. Our brains convince us that certain death awaits on every side, but we’re absolutely safe. We are.
There we go. This thing I’ve been meaning to write about for five years now exists on my website. Incomplete, minimally described, but whatever. It doesn’t have to be an essay every time, y’know?
In some ways I’m always stuck and just engaged in various stages of trying to wrestle myself free, but lately I’ve felt really stuck.
I cracked James Kochalka’s The Cute Manifesto in the studio a couple weeks ago because I’ve been trying to revisit formative reads from my early years of making comics and I couldn’t remember anything about it beyond a vague sense that it had been Important to me (although I was never really a dedicated reader of American Elf). The first piece is this:
“Craft is the Enemy” was originally published as a letter to The Comics Journal in 1996. It sparked a textual brawl between several readers and cartoonists (all, as far as I can tell, men) that lasted for months afterward. TCJ published an archive of all the letters on their blog, Blood and Thunder: Craft is the Enemy.
The debate exhausted me just skimming it.
I didn’t know about the fight when I opened the book. I just knew that somehow, a quarter of a century later, I was still the target audience for certain parts of this message: someone so prone to getting sidetracked by her own perfectionism that she was forgetting why she’d even walked into the room.
I am fucking petrified of starting work on my next project. I feel convinced that it won’t measure up to the standards of professionalism I’ve been cultivating from my own internal scripts and the constant barrage of everyone’s best selves on social media. I am someone who desperately needs the reminder that I have the tools I need to make comics RIGHT NOW, even if they don’t turn out the way I imagine they “should”.
And look, before anyone brings it up, yes, I’ve been the person giving this reminder to others in the past. But it’s a role that’s hard for me to occupy right now. I needed to hear it from someone else. I needed it because I have plenty of proof that I’ll do well if I turn my attention to a project or task at hand, and that knowledge becomes a prison. Every project must be bigger and better than the one before. The line must go up and to the right. If you did well before you must do better now. The practice gets harder, not easier.
I fret and pace and gnaw my fingernails thinking about how much work it will take to cultivate the craft I think I need to make the thing I want to make the way I imagine making it, but no amount of craft will save me from the truth: nothing has EVER come out exactly the way I picture it in my brain. Not once. Every single time it’s a surprise. And I know from reading other artists’ accounts of their practice that this will continue to be true for the rest of my life.
This is the struggle, but it’s also the joy of the work. It’s endemic to the practice. It’s a liberation.
Why do I keep forgetting?
I don’t want to obsess about what will make my work perfect. That’s an impossible benchmark. I want to engage with the parts of the process that bring me joy. I want to tell stories. I want to explore with words and pictures. I want to get closer while still knowing I’ll never reach the finish line. A lot of the time this goal makes me think of Hokusai:
[…] all I have done before the age of seventy is not worth bothering with. At seventy-five I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am eighty you will see real progress. At ninety I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At one hundred, I shall be a marvellous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before.
And yet, even he fell prey to it—right to the end.
If heaven had granted me five more years, I could have become a real painter.
I’m trying to keep skipping back and forth between dedication and gentleness, discipline and play. That’s what makes it a practice. Ním recently finished writing his Theory of Conceptual Labor after years of exploration and refinement. There’s a lot of craft at work there, but the text itself is also about this nebulous space of flitting from adherence to exploration and back again. (Writing about the Theory is a whole post in itself, so I’ll leave it for now, but I couldn’t not throw it in here.)
Years ago, on Twitter, I polled people on how they’d describe their relationship to creativity. I asked whether it felt like a job or an obsession or a calling. Everyone who responded to that poll had their own suggestions to include. I’ve thrown them all together into a loose mind map below:
This whole map feels true.
I have, at varying times, thought of myself as a craftsperson, a business owner, a religious zealot, a hack. I’ve pored over pages and relished the presence of thoughtful choices in composition and line weight. I’ve also seen the toll a dedication to craft can take on someone who’s being crushed in the vice of a traditional publishing deadline. I’ve copied and pasted and traced. I’ve insisted on using an Ames guide. I’ve worked digitally. I’ve worked traditionally. I want all of it. Is that so bad?
The roundup of letters from TCJ feels so deeply, seriously (and often cruelly and condescendingly) concerned with Rightness. Who is going to win in this fight? I wonder whether there’s more room these days for “This advice is exactly what some people need to hear, and for some other people thinking of comics as a craft is what THEY need to hear”.
Like…why fight about it? The relationship is between you and your work. What works FOR YOU in THIS MOMENT?
And then I realize where I’ve seen this pattern before. It reminds me of the ways I see queerness operating in our culture right now—working as a verb. There is, of course, still a lot of Discourse about identity and rulesets and gender and all the rest of it. The same patterns of policing abound. But I also feel like the increasing queerness of these spaces makes more room for a mentality of Yes, And instead of Either/Or.
When I look at the immeasurable wealth of queer identities and relationships and backgrounds at play in my circles, I see an enormous field of willingness to accept paradox. I see people engaging deeply and earnestly with the question of how they want to be seen and what they want to be called and who they want to get into bed with and how they want to love and where they want to fit in, but really, far more importantly, what makes them happy.
And I see people supporting each other by applying a simple metric:
Yes. However, because I draw so much, so hard, I almost can’t help but to improve my chops and solidify my craft. I have to purposefully cultivate a situation where I can still be surprised, where the new and unexpected sneaks in and overpowers my years of experience.
Some people are very concerned about mapping and naming, plotting and quantifying. I run the risk of being that kind of person from time to time, too. Someone asked me the other day how long I’d been in unconventional relationships and I struggled to answer. I felt that pressure to be able to explain. To know.
But I never felt like I had a good name for what I wanted, so I just kept stumbling along a path without a map, until one day I looked up and found myself somewhere that felt like home. These are the ways queerness operates: by circumventing the boundaries of the expected. By overpowering experience.
Anyway, craft and queerness. Yes, And. Forage for what feeds you, leave the rest.
The Kickstarter for Tell the Turning has come and gone. It funded with joyous speed, which helped me lean into treating it as an exercise in enoughness over the course of its lifespan, but I still experienced the odd pang of guilt that I wasn’t saturating the digital airwaves with more promotion. It helped that I was undergoing a massive slate of complex life things during those three weeks: second vaccine doses, unexpected deaths, preparations to return to Oregon and pack the rest of my life into boxes for a more permanent move. It was good to remember that we already had enough, and that I had two amazing collaborators doing their part as well. (If you haven’t read any of Stefan’s project updates, I recommend them wholeheartedly.)
Now we get to make a book, arguably the meat of the thing, but a Kickstarter leaves one with some delightful side products.
Volunteering to make the video for the campaign was a chance for me to practice editing (something I’ve been wanting to work on), and a challenge to capture the eccentric flavor of our little fellowship. It was also an exercise in embracing imperfection, since I’d started adhering to absurdly high standards on my own campaigns and needed to shake some of that loose.1
With the campaign over, I find myself wondering: where will that video live now? Does it still serve a purpose? I don’t know. But it’s funny how sometimes the parts of a project I’m most proud of are those adjacent to the work itself.
Once (and only once) I got my shit together for a talk far enough in advance to craft a deck of custom-illustrated slides that came out better than I could’ve hoped.
I organized my year-long tour for 100 Demon Dialogues via an Airtable database that can soothe even my darkest moments of self doubt.
I love these bits and pieces, even if they don’t go in my portfolio or grace the front of my site. Even if they’re for projects in hibernation, or enjoying their final rest. They’re still out there: not the whole thing, but part of the thing.
1. Don’t get me wrong: I’m thrilled with the animated demon Patrick and Chris helped me pull off for the 100 Demon DialoguesKickstarter video. I watched it the other day and grinned thinking about the day we spent filming in Patrick’s apartment, me staring at a chopstick with a post-it note demon stuck to the top to try and line up eyesights correctly. It has been extremely worth it to pay friends to help make my work better—hell, Chris is responsible for helping me line up those three long-distanced waving shots for the Tell the Turning video—but there’s something to be said for doing it less well myself sometimes. It’s good to remember that I can. ↩
[I’m going to start cross-posting the weird captain’s log audio updates I’ve been doing on Patreon for the last couple years here on my blog. If you’d like to take a spin through the whole archive, I’ve made a page for every past episode here.]
Okay, so! A Ramble. Typically when I share these on Patreon I try to keep it simple and just throw up a list of links to things I talked about, in case folks want to follow up and read what I’m reading. I still don’t know how to approach the practice here. Ironically, this particular Ramble is about the relative ease of talking compared to writing for me, and how the pressure to “get it right” in text is so much stronger.
I recognize that this is probably diametrically opposed to how a lot of people feel about any kind of public (or semi-public) speaking, but I think by talking, and my best thinking-talking usually happens when I’m addressing people who get it. Sometimes this is specific friends for specific projects, but there’s a reason this practice came into being on Patreon. My Patrons have bought into the weird, non-transactional structure I’ve built for my page, which means they’re probably the people I trust the most with an imperfect, non-linear audio snapshot of whatever I’m thinking about at the time.
On a practical note: I talk so much faster than I write. My guess is that a transcription of each Ramble would feel like an insurmountable slog to read through, but as a 20-minute audio snippet it’s a relatively small ask. You can do other stuff while consuming it, which I know people do because they comment and tell me about it! How lovely to imagine a friend or stranger doing dishes or puttering in the garden while we spend twenty asynchronous minutes together. It’s the best.
Every Ramble also comes paired with a photo I took while recording it. This started because I was too lazy to draw a cover for the first one, but it’s become a really important part of the process. It creates a visual touchstone that reminds me of the season and the weather and the moment when I was thinking these thoughts. Seeing them all together feels like a form of cyclical time travel.
Anyway, here’s today’s:
This Ramble felt like going to therapy on a week where I think nothing in particular’s been going on, but find myself reckoning with the unseen weight of countless stressors from the last three days alone within five minutes of opening my mouth. Except I should replace “stressors” with “stuff I’ve been thinking about while reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home” to paint a more accurate picture.
And because I do think it helps, here’s that list of links to things mentioned: